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March 30, 2012

New Books: The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom


As I've written before, it's always a thrill to discover a great new voice in kid lit. It's even more exciting when the new voice is someone you know. My former colleague Christopher Healy—who taught me all I know about children's entertainment, and is really the one who inspired me to take up writing this blog after the magazine closed—has written his first children's book. Which would be enough of an achievement on its own to congratulate him for, but I'm going to breeze right by that. Because The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom is easily the best kids' chapter book from a new author I've encountered since I started covering them. (It doesn't actually arrive in stores till May 1, but I can't hold back from writing about it any longer. And hey, you can preorder!)

As the title suggests, Healy (it feels odd to refer to him this way, but I may as well stick to blog precedent) has selected the world of classic fairy tales as the setting for his debut. And he's found a clever twist that none of the other great fractured-fairy-tale authors, from Scieszka and Smith to Goldman to Sondheim and Lapine, ever hit upon, to my knowledge: telling the stories of the various anonymous princes lumped under the name "Charming."

As the author explains, the bards who tell these tales tend to focus on the princesses and the witches and giants and such, and some of the facts—like the individual names and characteristics of the heroes involved, say—generally get lost. And so four princes as wildly different as Prince Frederick (Cinderella's prince, dashing and elegant but with no adventuring experience whatsoever), Prince Gustav (Rapunzel's, big and gruff and always ready to fight—and lose to—anyone or anything), Prince Liam (Sleeping Beauty's, a doer of deeds, and the only classic hero of the lot, really), and Prince Duncan (Snow White's, sweet but…a bit eccentric, let's say) all find themselves marginalized in their own stories under a single name that's not even theirs. Naturally, they're a bit resentful.

They also find themselves not as happily-ever-after as the bard tales would have people think. Liam, for instance, discovers that when she's awake, Sleeping Beauty is a remarkably unpleasant princess, and not the sort of woman he wants to marry at all; for his part, Frederick finds that Cinderella, after her years of toil, wants an adventurous life and is terribly bored by the cushy, luxurious one he's accustomed to. Trying to solve their personal problems—and eventually noticing that the bards they each loathe so much have all mysteriously vanished—the four princes wind up meeting and joining forces. At which point they realize two things: First, with the exception of Liam, they are not the most competent of heroic teammates. Second, they're up against a much more fearsome foe than any of them had suspected, one who threatens all their kingdoms.

Healy keeps the pace quick and the tone wonderfully light throughout—if you imagine a combination of The Princess Bride and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, you'll have a sense of how funny this book is. He also proves expert at sharp characterization, from the four princes themselves to ingenious supporting characters like a bratty ten-year-old boy who's so evil and so devious that he's become the Bandit King and now runs the whole region's criminal element; a benign and pleasant giant who, unfortunately, has to work for an evil witch because he needs the job; and the land's best bounty hunter, who also happens to have a severe case of clinical depression.

The result is a true page-turner of an adventure story that also has its readers—young and old, but especially young—constantly in stitches. When I was reading the book to my seven-year-old at bedtime, I had to take lengthy pauses many times to allow Dash to recover from paroxysms of laughter. At the same time, he was always pushing to read more chapters than we had time for in a given evening, eager to find out what happened next.

Frankly, if I'd known he was going to be this good at this back when I was editing his section at Cookie magazine, I'd have encouraged Chris to miss a few deadlines and start writing his book sooner! I suspect this is the beginning of a long and ever more fruitful career for him, and as with all the other leading lights of the genre, I can't wait to see what he comes up with next. I also, of course, couldn't be more pleased to give The Hero's Guide to Saving Your Kingdom my highest recommendation.

[Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins]

March 28, 2012

New Books: Black Gold


Since my sons are still just seven and three years old, my coverage of history books for kids doesn't usually get out of the picture-book genre. But I'm enough of a general nonfiction reader myself that occasionally I run across something for older readers that I have to mention here (and save for my own children till they're a bit older).

The history of oil—that is, the petroleum kind—doesn't seem at first like much of a topic for a children's-book author. It's complicated, chemistry-laden, and politically, well, explosive. But the subject is, one must admit, one of the vital ones of our time, and writer Albert Marrin has taken a crack at a short history for middle- and high-schoolers of the greasy, precious stuff and humankind's interactions with it in Black Gold: The Story of Oil in Our Lives.

It's an ambitious crack at that, starting with the geological and chemical science of how oil and the other fossil fuels come to exist. Marrin then moves chronologically through man's first fleeting brushes against these powerful energy sources, up through the explosion (that word again) of their use beginning in—fueling, actually, if you will—the Industrial Revolution.

From this point on, the author does a commendable job of balancing the massively positive short-term (no more giant piles of horse waste fouling city streets) and long-term (um...all of modern technology) effects these energy sources have had with their negative counterparts (air and water becoming fouled in different ways; global warming). He concludes with a forthright presentation of the energy challenges facing humanity in the 21st century, from peak oil to melting icecaps to geopolitical power struggles. Somehow he does all this in a remarkably gentle, even-handed, and readable fashion that I think most parents of any nonradical political persuasion will be comfortable with. (Needless to say, those for whom any nonderisive mention of the words global warming is anathema may wish to stay away from this book. As well as most other nonfiction.)

It's a remarkable achievement, presenting this much information in such digestible fashion, and in a mere 181 pages. And when Dash or Griff in future years comes to me saying he has a report to write for school on oil, or energy in general, this is the book I'm going to send him to first.

[Cover image courtesy of Random House]

March 20, 2012

New Music: The Little Red Hen & Other Stories

The Good Ms. Padgett is something of a throwback, in these days of ultrahip, genre-hopping children's music. Her second kids' CD, The Good Ms. Padgett Sings the Little Red Hen and Other Stories, contains four classic children's stories told in a combination of spoken word and song, with acoustic-guitar accompaniment that put me immediately in a retro frame of mind, as if I'd suddenly switched on an old TV set and found myself watching Carole and Paula on The Magic Garden. (I suppose I am forgetting that retro is ultrahip...)

But Padgett, whose real first name is Anna rather than The Good Ms., knows what she's doing. She honed her storytelling skills in front of some of our nation's most demanding audiences—Brooklyn preschoolers—and it shows. (It doesn't hurt, of course, that she has naturally great pacing and a lovely singing voice.)

She's savvy enough to have chosen stories—including one of my own childhood favorites, the Billy Goats Gruff—that fall into repeating patterns, allowing for the kind of musical repetition that hooks preschool-age kids immediately. They learn the simple melody the first time through, and then can sing along themselves each time the pattern comes around again.

Yes, Pete Seeger and hundreds before him have been using this technique for years, but there's a reason for that: It works. As proof, I offer up my three-year-old, Griff, who was mesmerized by The Good Ms. from hello. Since he is not, as a rule, mesmeriz-able at this age by anything, even ice cream, for much more than a minute, that's a pretty serious recommendation right there.

[Cover image courtesy of The Good Ms. Padgett]

March 14, 2012

New Books: Up, Tall and High

Didactic books for beginning readers...well, just look at the phrase. Sounds like the kiss of death already, no? Yet in the right hands, books that teach basic linguistic concepts—like author-illustrator Ethan Long's Up, Tall and High—can be both irresistibly charming and remarkably effective.

In this book, a cast of three Mo Willems–esque birds demonstrate the practical meaning of the three somewhat related words in the title. Each lesson is very short and very simple, yet manages to get across surprising levels of complexity (the relativity of the word tall, for example). And each ends with a little punch line, revealed by opening a flap.

It's the kind of book our three-year-old keeps coming back to; the whimsical characters delight him. And while I don't plan to test the depth of his knowledge of the book's three keywords, the way he studies each little story have me convinced that the mini lessons are penetrating. Not that it matters, to be honest—his pure delight in reading the book is plenty.

[Cover image courtesy of Penguin USA]

March 9, 2012

New Music: Can't Wait

The influence of bands like Vampire Weekend (and, in some cases, the Broadway show Fela!) is widespread in today's music for kids, which is full of sunny African sounds and rhythms everywhere you turn. So when I first heard Can't Wait, the second album from Grenadilla, I first assumed it was part of that trend. (When will I learn not to assume things?)

Turns out the band's lead vocalist and songwriter, Debbie Lan, hails from Cape Town herself, and thus has a closer tie to kwela music and the African-style harmonies that inform Grenadilla's sound than the influence of any mere New York City band. Lan also happens to have a marvelous singing voice, clear and warm, that will make parents who are fans of Joni Mitchell, Rickie Lee Jones, and Natalie Merchant feel right at home; the group's ensemble vocal harmonies are likewise marvelous.

And the kids? Suffice it to say that within 12 bars of the first track on Can't Wait—the infectious "Sitting on Top of the World" (an original, by the way, not the '20s classic made famous by Al Jolson)—my son Dash had left the breakfast table to start dancing in the kitchen. A song that can distract a seven-year-old from pancakes? I'm not sure there's any higher praise for its creators.

[Cover image courtesy of Grenadilla]

March 7, 2012

Security Blanket: Hands

We've recently reached yet another fascinating stage (aren't they all, really?) of parenting: Our three-year-old, Griffin, is starting to pick his way through many of the books his older brother, Dash, read back when he was three. It's interesting to see which he loves more than Dash did, and which of the old favorites he has little time for; there are ample examples of both. But the best endorsement our family can now give a children's book is that both kids have independently taken it to their hearts.

Hands: Growing Up to Be an Artist, by Lois Ehlert, is a 2004 book we'd almost forgotten about—it's been that long since Dash read it much. But Griff picked it off the shelf recently, and now it's again one of the new regulars at bedtime.

It's written from the perspective of a girl whose mother and father both work around the house in various handy, crafty ways—painting, sewing, building, planting. Ehlert illustrates this abstractly with busy close-up photo-collages of the materials and items being worked on, and cutouts of the different types of work gloves they use. The narrator then explain how she's been allowed to pitch in and learn how to do all these tasks, with a work space and tools of her own. The book ends with a series of work gloves that tie mother, father, and daughter together: one big crafty family.

This message of family creativity is, of course, nearly irresistible to parents of a certain bent, and this could have been one of those books that the adults adore but the kids are bored by. But Dash seized upon it as a toddler and didn't let go for years; it was a recurring favorite for a long, long time. Now Griff has done the same, and despite being a very different personality, seems to respond just the same way Dash did to Ehlert's simple text and multifaceted collages. 

The book also seems to magically survive toddler reads in a way most books with cutouts don't—somehow, mysteriously, those work-glove pages don't have torn fingers. Since Hands is not made of heavy-duty cardboard or anything like that, I can only attribute this to a weird respect the boys have for the book...realizing as I type it how very bizarre that statement is!

[Cover image courtesy of Harcourt Children's Books]